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Synergy at the heart of Colorado Springs' high-tech Catalyst Campus

January 4, 2018 Updated: January 4, 2018 at 1:59 pm
Caption +
The Space Operations Center also known as SpOC at the Catalyst Campus is shown on Wednesday January 3, 2018 as renovations and updates were being made around the facility in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

The word "synergy" comes up a lot in discussion of the Catalyst Campus for Technology & Innovation.

It's a reason, for example, cited by Shawn Murray for locating his cybersecurity-oriented startup, Murray Security Services, at the downtown Colorado Springs campus.

"It just seemed like a lot of great things were happening there," Murray said. "There's a lot of synergy, a lot of focus on IT and cybersecurity."

His business includes teaching courses in information and cybersecurity. Its presence at Catalyst has helped the company grow, Murray said.

"They've got state-of-the-art equipment. They can accommodate small classes, large classes. ... It's been going well for us."

The Catalyst Campus officially opened in June 2016; it's the brainchild of Kevin O'Neil, CEO of The O'Neil Group Co.

A limited liability company created by The O'Neil Group Co. bought the former Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad depot and related properties at 555-559 E. Pikes Peak Ave. in 2014 for more than $4 million; over $12 million has been pumped into renovations and technology upgrades since then, with work continuing.

"Originally, we opened Catalyst Campus to be a collaborative environment for defense companies that needed a platform and an infrastructure to further their business," O'Neil said. That's still the mission, backed by a collection of tech-related organizations, support services and other partners.

But O'Neil also points to a shift to more of a research and development facility, particularly in support of space and aerospace.

"We see the platform starting to evolve for the companies that need infrastructure and data that is very rare and hard to find," he said. "Unclassified satellite data that comes out of space takes a lot of different forms. We see Catalyst becoming that platform to provide help with data, to provide help with infrastructure.

"It's not unlike our electrical grid, where if you build something you have to plug into a system that is standard. This campus is helping to promote and expose those standards to smaller companies so as they build their products, especially in the commercial realm, they understand that there's a requirement to plug into."

The many pieces

The campus has also been envisioned as the hub for dozens of startups. While that hasn't happened yet, many pieces have come together. Among the components:

- Catalyst is home to three "business resource partners": the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center, or PTAC, and the local chapter of SCORE, which provides free business advice by volunteers.

The SBDC and PTAC moved to Catalyst from the El Paso County Citizens Service Center on Garden of the Gods Road in September. While the county center is more focused on human services, "the atmosphere here is more business oriented, and that's really what drove us down here," PTAC Executive Director Dennis Casey said.

"There's a lot of crossover on what folks need if you're in business," Casey said. "We all have our areas of expertise, so it's great to have all three resources just right here. Quite often a company will need all three of us."

Catalyst has committed to subsidizing SBDC's and PTAC's tenancy in the amount of $500,000 over five years, said Ingrid Richter, Catalyst's executive director; SCORE's rent is also discounted.

Another business resource partner may be coming: Catalyst is vying to house a regional Veterans Business Outreach Center that would serve Colorado and New Mexico.

There are also several companies with a presence on campus, ranging from Blakely + Company to Herring Bank, providing support services such as accounting, HR and marketing and advertising support.

So while Catalyst's focus is on space and defense, "we have organizations that can help any business that walks through the door," said Rebecca Decker, campus deputy director.

- Two tech-related nonprofits - the Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization, or C-TRAC, and the Southern Colorado Technology Alliance - are based at Catalyst along with the southern Colorado chapter of the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Association, a trade organization. The latter two groups are seeing changes, though.

The Southern Colorado Technology Alliance is rebranding and could soon have a new name. And CAMA South is shifting to more of a focus on outreach, outgoing coordinator Randy Scott said. While the chapter will continue to use the facilities at Catalyst, "we're going to be spending more time with manufacturers in their place of business and identifying what their needs are and those types of thing," he said.

C-TRAC, meanwhile, "runs a variety of programs at Catalyst Campus to bring small businesses, startups and commercial vendors opportunities to learn the real needs of the military operator," Managing Director Erin Miller said. "A great example is the AF CyberWorx - as an innovation unit of the Air Force, they tackle complex operational problems that our airmen need to resolve, and the private sector perspective is essential to the success of the CyberWorx program. C-TRAC is tasked to recruit participants into this new model of doing business with our government."

- Catalyst is the site of the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, which trains transitioning service members and veterans for IT careers. Microsoft holds the classes in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The inaugural class finished the 18-week accelerated program in October, with 21 students receiving their certificate of completion. A second class is underway. The Catalyst academy is one of a few held off-base.

"We are always evaluating opportunities for bringing MSSA on and off-base," a statement from Microsoft says. "The off-base program in partnership with Catalyst Campus allows us to take advantage of a great education facility and offer a more flexible schedule to local service members."

- The development and testing of satellite, space and GPS technologies for the Air Force Research Laboratory - and ultimately for commercial applications - is the focus of the Cyber and Space Operations Center, developed with the help of a $750,000 grant from the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

"We see our center with rapid capabilities for someone to go from idea or concept into deployment," O'Neil said. A report on Colorado's aerospace industry by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. touted the center as "the only space and satellite private research laboratory of its kind in the nation."

- Catalyst will also be the site of a Pikes Peak Community College cybersecurity lab, joining labs at PPCC's Rampart Range and Centennial campuses.

The new lab will be used for a noncredit cybersecurity test-prep course and corporate training for local employers. The first session, Certified Ethical Hacker, is scheduled to start in February.

"There's so much synergy right now about cybersecurity programming at the Catalyst Campus that it's the right place to be," said Debbie Sagen, vice president for workforce development at PPCC.

- Catalyst's first accelerator will take off soon. Catalyst is partnering with the Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate, SBDC-Boulder and C-TRAC, with a goal of improving global weather data and products to support the Department of Defense. Six companies chosen for the accelerator will be announced late this month; the 12-week program will include an "economic gardening"-based curriculum provided by SBDC-Boulder, direct access to government customers and commercial mentors and immediate startup capital through a Catalyst-endowed accelerator fund and a statewide venture capital network.

"Potentially at the end of the program there will be private investments or the military will pick up some of these companies and help them with the next version of their prototypes or extended research and development," said Decker, who is also the Catalyst Accelerator program director.

Progress report

Richter sees bringing all these components together as Catalyst's greatest accomplishment.

"There really were a lot of relationships and a lot of truly disparate pieces that we had to pull together to get to where we are today," she said.

Murray, of Murray Security Services, is plugged into many of those pieces. He has worked with the SBDC and is a member of SCORE and the Southern Colorado Technology Alliance.

"There are a lot of us that have different niches," he said. "So when Carson or Peterson or Schriever announces a contract to fulfill, a senior government person can come and articulate those requirements and a partnership can be established to go after some of that work. It's all part of that synergy."

As even more pieces fall into place, Richter said, "We're really looking forward to trying to create a premier applied research and development facility that really integrates the government and academia and industry.

O'Neil said he's happy with the progress.

"We're further along than we thought we would be," he said. "We have more demand than we can field. . I would say it's everything we thought it would be - and starting to become more."

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